A to Z Challenge Folklore

Banshee: Queen of Fear #AtoZChallenge #folklore

Q is for Queen.

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Famous, but so misunderstood, the wailing Banshee is the queen of fear.

Folklore

True Irish Ghost Stories by St. John D. Seymour and Harry L. Neligan [1914]

Of all Irish ghosts, fairies, or bogies, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the “Bohēēntha” or “Bankēēntha”) is the best known to the general public: indeed, cross-Channel visitors would class her with pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and would expect her to make manifest her presence to them as being one of the sights of the country. She is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree—how lengthy no man can say, as its roots go back into the dim, mysterious past. The most famous Banshee of ancient times was that attached to the kingly house of O’Brien, Aibhill, who haunted the rock of Craglea above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In A.D. 1014 was fought the battle of Clontarf, from which the aged king, Brian Boru, knew that he would never come away alive, for the previous night Aibhill had appeared to him to tell him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling death in olden times differed from that adopted by her at the present day: now she wails and wrings her hands, as a general rule, but in the old Irish tales she is to be found washing human heads and limbs, or bloodstained clothes, till the water is all dyed with human blood—this would take place before a battle. So it would seem that in the course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.

Very different descriptions are given of her personal appearance. Sometimes she is young and beautiful, sometimes old and of a fearsome appearance. One writer describes her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated round her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak, or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another person, a coachman, saw her one evening sitting on a stile in the yard; she seemed to be a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. 

*More about the banshee can be read in the book.

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde [1887]

THE Banshee means, especially, the woman of the fairy race, from van, “the Woman–the Beautiful;” the same word from which comes Venus. Shiloh-Van was one of the names of Buddha–“the son of the woman;” and some writers aver that in the Irish–Sullivan (Sulli-van), may be found this ancient name of Buddha.

As the Leanan-Sidhe was the acknowledged spirit of life, giving inspiration to the poet and the musician, so the Ban-Sidhe was the spirit of death, the most weird and awful of all the fairy powers.

But only certain families of historic lineage, or persons gifted with music and song, are attended by this spirit; for music and poetry are fairy gifts, and the possessors of them show kinship to the spirit race–therefore they are watched over by the spirit of life, which is prophecy and inspiration; and by the spirit of doom, which is the revealer of the secrets of death.

Sometimes the Banshee assumes the form of some sweet singing virgin of the family who died young, and has been given the mission by the invisible powers to become the harbinger of coming doom to her mortal kindred. Or she may be seen at night as a shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees, lamenting with veiled face; or flying past in the moonlight, crying bitterly: and the cry of thus spirit is mournful beyond all other sounds on earth, and betokens certain death to some member of the family whenever it. is heard in the silence of the night.

*More can be read in the book.

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
Edited and Selected by W. B. Yeats
[1888]

THE BANSHEE

The banshee (from ban [bean], a woman, and shee [sidhe], a fairy) is an attendant fairy that follows the old families, and none but them, and wails before a death. Many have seen her as she goes wailing and clapping her hands. The keen [caoine], the funeral cry of the peasantry, is said to be an imitation of her cry. When more than one banshee is present, and they wail and sing in chorus, it is for the death of some holy or great one. An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is the coach-a-bower (cóiste-bodhar)–an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan. It will go rumbling to your door, and if you open it, according to Croker, a basin of blood will be thrown in your face. These headless phantoms are found elsewhere than in Ireland. In 1807 two of the sentries stationed outside St. James’s Park died of fright. A headless woman, the upper part of her body naked, used to pass at midnight and scale the railings. After a time the sentries were stationed no longer at the haunted spot. In Norway the heads of corpses were cut off to make their ghosts feeble. Thus came into existence the Dullahans, perhaps; unless, indeed, they are descended from that Irish giant who swam across the Channel with his head in his teeth.

Bunworth Banshee” , “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland”, by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825. Image credit.

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Banshee (or Bean-Sidh) is an Irish omen of death in the form of a weeping, wailing spirit, described, in the seventeenth-century Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe, as ‘a woman in white… with red hair and pale and ghastly complexion:… to me her body looked more like a thick cloud than substance.’

Tales of the Scottish banshee depict the banshee as deformed. In Popular Tales of the West Highlands (4 vols, 1860-1862), JF Campbell describes an old mill that is haunted by a banshee:

She was sitting on a stone, quiet, and beautifully dressed in a green silk dress, the sleeves of which were curiously puffed from the wrists to the shoulder. Her long hair was yellow, like ripe corn; but on nearer view, she had no nose.

Another guise of the banshee in Scottish and Irish folklore is as the bean nighe, or washer woman, who is to be found beside lonely streams washing blood from the clothes of those soon to die. On the Island of Skye the bean nighe is said to be ‘squat in figure and not unlike a small pitiful child,’ according to JG Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900).

Meaning ‘weeper’, caoineag is one of the names of the Scottish banshee. Her wail, heard in the darkness at a waterfall, heralds catastrophe for the clan. She is heard, but never seen.

Bozaloshtsh, a banshee-like spirit in Wend folklore of eastern Germany. Like the Irish banshee, she is an omen of impending death and weeps in lament beneath the window of those about to die.

*More can be read in the book.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Banshee

Variations: Bean Chaointe (keening woman), Bean Si, Bean-Nighe, Bean-Sìdhe (woman of the fairy), Beansidhe, Benshi, Caoineag, Cointeach, Cyhireath, Cyoerraeth, Eur-Cunnere Noe, Gwarch Y Rhibyn, Kannerez-Noz, Lady of Death, Little Washer by the Ford, Spirit of the Air, Washer at the Banks, Washer at the Ford, Washer of the Shrouds, White Lady of Sorrow, Woman of Peace.

In Irish folklore the banshee was originally a singular entity, an ancestral spirit wailing to announce an upcoming death for one of the five major families: the Kavanghs, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys, and the O’Neills. In modern times, it is still believed the mournful cry of the banshee can still be heard; it is considered to be a death omen, those who hear it will know someone who will die the following night. When a chorus of banshee gathers and wails together it is said someone holy or great is going to die.

*More can be read in the book.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

Banshee

Celtic mythological being.

The Irish word bean-sìdhe – woman of the fairy people – originally referred to any woman of the Otherworld. Such beings were often early goddesses of the land, diminished into regional fairy queens when their worshippers were conquered by those who honoured other divinities. Over time, however, the banshee’s domain narrowed, until she became a spirit who announced forthcoming death.

The banshee is similar to the Washer at the Ford, who washed the clothes of those about to die in battle, save that she specialises in deaths from causes other than war. She is a folkloric rather than a literary character, not appearing in written documents until the 17th century, after which her presence is commonplace. She appears either as a hag or a lovely woman. The banshee often has red hair (a common signifier of fairy blood), or wears white or green clothing. Sometimes she combs her hair with a golden comb as she wails in anticipatory grief, usually at noon.

The banshee has been linked to Celtic goddesses such as Aine.

*More can be read in the book.

Further Reading:

Folklore of the Banshee in a Nutshell by Ronel

The Banshee (fairy woman) is portrayed in Scotland as an ugly crone and in Ireland as a beautiful woman. She appears in three guises: maiden, matronly mother, and wizened hag. The banshee often has burning red eyes and wears a green dress and grey cloak – her hair is either silvery-white or red. But it is said that one more often hears her than sees her. The sound of her voice varies from region to region: a melodious hum to some is described as a screeching night creature by others. These ghostly screams are always heard at night.

She is known by many names, “washer woman” and “keening woman” being among the favourites. She either wails outside the house of someone who is soon to die or washes the blood out of the clothes of someone who will soon meet their end. It is well-established that she is an omen of death.

The origin of the banshee is steeped in myth: she is either a ghost of an Irish woman who died in some horrible fashion, or of faery descent (from the Tuatha Dé Dannan and other concepts about faeries).

As a ghostly banshee, she roams the forests and moors nearly invisible. Each Irish family is said to have their own banshee. She follows them to whatever new home they move. If you hear a piteous moan in the deep of night, beware: it might be your family’s banshee forewarning you of your death or the death of someone close to you (if you have Irish ancestry, of course).

Banshee in Modern Culture

Teen Wolf

In Teen Wolf, Lydia screams a lot and has visions of the future – a witch told her that’s she’s “the wailing woman”.

Lydia the Banshee. Image credit.

Banshees on Teen Wolf can hear voices in their heads. Often this leads them, subconsciously, to murder scenes. They sometimes write or draw messages from the voices subconsciously.

While they get early indications that someone is going to die, their ability lacks precision and the banshees seen on show to date don’t seem to be in complete control of their abilities.

Banshees on Teen Wolf do not appear to be supernatural. Chris Argent explains in Maid of Gevaudan that banshees have a connection to the supernatural but are not controlled by it. For example, Lydia can cross Mountain Ash barriers which no supernatural creature on the show can cross, and she remains unaffected by kanima venom and the bite of an Alpha werewolf.

Banshee in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Banshee

The Banshee is a wailing wraith usually clad in green. she can have either red or blonde hair which floats around her. she is strikingly beautiful despite her incessant bawling.
Once she is banished (usually by a stronger Faery) her body puffs out to resemble a cloud of smoke and her face becomes truly ghastly and terrifying, still framed by her reddish-blonde hair. she disappears in a puff of smoke.
The Banshee always tries to trick people or Faeries into thinking that they’re dying. She’ll wail until the person she haunts dies. (Running away from her can be dangerous – cliffs, trucks, various sharp objects, etc.)
Though the Banshee is thought to be a harbinger of Death, she usually causes it.

banshee English Afrikaans
banshee sketch
unseen book extract
Get it here.

When did you hear about the Banshee for the first time? Any folktales about the Banshee you’d like to share? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to this fae.

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24 thoughts on “Banshee: Queen of Fear #AtoZChallenge #folklore”

  1. When I was a child we had a cat named Banshee because of his loud, persistent mewing. He was a great cat. It was it only when I was older that I learned that banshees are scary things.

  2. As a child, the banshee scene in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” left me absolutely terrified that I would glimpse a banshee out the window as I went upstairs to bed in the dark. Maybe my seven-year-old self would have been comforted had she only known that, not being from one of the 5 great Irish families, we didn’t rate a banshee visit.
    Black and White (Words and Pictures)

  3. And then there is Melusine, the French water spirit, who left her mortal husband and children, but came back as a harbinger of death. Strictly speaking, she would be an ancestress of the British Royal family, via Elizabeth Woodville, whose French mother was of that family. I haven’t heard, though, that she has appeared to anyone in the last few centuries. 😏 (Maybe that’s because she is alive and well and living in Canberra, as in Gillian Polack’s novel The Time Of The Ghosts)

  4. The first time I heard about the banshee was in a fantasy novel. I was immediately fascinated, though I can’t say why. I suppose I liked the idea that she was bound to a family and that she cried before a death. Which was scary, but also an act of compassion, I suppose.

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter – Living the Twenties

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